The last few days have witnessed unseen violence against the Christian minority in Pakistan. Two attacks against Christian communities have even caused victims, maybe for the first time. How many houses were burned or the reasons behind the attacks are maybe less important matters, but in both cases a Christian was accused of blasphemy against the Holy Qur‘an.
In a public statement the chief minister of Punjab said, “Nobody, no matter how serious the offense, can take justice into his own hands”. Such a condemnation seems too feeble for a brutal attack that ended in seven people burnt alive, including two children and relatives of a local Franciscan priest.
Just a few weeks before the attack in Gojra, the city of Kasur, on the border with India, experienced the same violence, although without victims. A few days before the attack in Gojra Christians requested help from police because tensions had been growing for some time, but in spite of the serious precedent in Kasur City and a timely request for help to law enforcement agencies, nobody moved . . . .
As the president of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan pointed out, local mosques were involved in aggressive propaganda, using loudspeakers to call on Muslims “to make mincemeat of the Christians.” Still it would be unfair if we did not recognize the kindhearted Muslim families who sheltered Christians when they escaped from their burning houses as mobs attacked them.
The leader of one of the most fundamentalist Islamic groups in Pakistan, Jama’at-e-Islami, held an “interfaith meeting” with the leaders of the country’s minorities to discuss a course of action after the events in Gojra. This came after he described what had happened as a possible “conspiracy” by those who want to challenge Pakistan’s Islamic laws (i.e. the sadly famous “Blasphemy Law”); implicitly suggesting that minorities themselves could have provoked the incidents to end a law which for them is very fair but for the rest of the world is against human rights.
A number of issues must be addressed. Why did the police not take preventive action to protect Christians when loud messages were broadcast from the top of local mosques? Was it just a spontaneous reaction of the local Muslim population when they heard about the desecration of the Qur‘an or was it something else, given the fact that those who acted more aggressively managed to burn more than 50 houses in a short span of time?
The latest developments point to the fact that many people in the mob belonged to a fundamentalist Islamic organization banned by the government. So one of the conclusions we can reach can be summarized by one word, impunity, the impunity with which banned organizations can organize and turn into reality this kind of actions, and the impunity of local authorities, who do not prevent them because they may be afraid to act whenever mosques or Islamic schools are involved in fanatical actions.
The world is paying little attention to these events, yet they underscore a problem, that of a country that allows educational institutions where future religious leaders are trained to become schools of hatred. We know that not all of them are like that but, as a priest, I would be worried to learn that a Christian seminary, anywhere in the world, was promoting a terrorist ideology and training youths for this purpose. Just one would be a reason to worry, and I can assure you that more than one Madrasah is doing just that at present. The people of Pakistan know it, and the government here knows it. Why then do we not see action taken against it?
The previous reflection brings me to the positive part of this article. Islam is full of good people, and I say this based on my own experience. I have seldom in fact felt rejected for being a non-Muslim in Pakistan. Pakistan is a much more tolerant society than people think. This country was born with the ideal of giving space to every person from every religion to practice and live their faith. Our Christian students are often helped by local industrialists to find good jobs and even complete their courses. I owe a big thanks to Muslim brothers and sisters all over the world who are working for a better world. But I think they have a very tough and dangerous journey ahead of them, one that spilled much blood in the West: the journey to freedom. Nobody will purify a religion, a religion called to make society more tolerant and humane, and rid it of its fundamentalists, except its own believers. We cannot expect anyone from the outside, especially when they are perceived as a threat rather than as a help, to do what people themselves must do.
Still there must be some role we can play in the journey true Islam has to make because we have already made it. I am not at all pessimistic. Maybe optimism is a trademark of us Salesians of Don Bosco, but I see many signs of hope around me: many peace initiatives in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, rallies for fair elections in Iran, an attempt (for now it could be enough as a sign of hope) to repeal laws that discriminate minorities in Muslim countries, tolerance and openness in countries like Qatar or Dubai, visits by Muslim leaders to the Vatican . . . and many more signs that something is moving and that we are on the right track. This is why we cannot let the radicals win. They simply have no place on this earth and our Muslim brothers and sisters must say this loud and clear . . . .
Maybe it is time to reconsider the way we look at religious dialogue. Maybe we should look at the way things can change through dialogue; no matter if results take time. A dialogue which bears no fruit is a waste of time. We know we are not embarking on an easy enterprise, but we should think about how we can improve the present situation.
Personally I see few results when we sit at the table with those who are not willing to listen or who do not listen with their hearts. I know of beautiful initiatives taken at the local level, among citizens who just meet once a month, bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims. They explain their faith to each other, compare and learn together, ordinarily realize that they are not so far from each other . . . and end up sharing a meal that unites. This is a way of building communities on a small scale. It does not entail watering down our faith or converting others, it means growing together. I think this is the way.
Islam is a theocracy. Hence educated people in a country like Pakistan, which has a high rate of illiteracy, know their faith well. Their families have passed onto them the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong based on their faith. They have acquired values which they share with non-Muslims. I find it very easy to find common ground with them, rather than just talk, and talk, and talk, having dinner together and making a press statement that is later put in a folder until the next meeting.
If as a Salesian I am optimistic and practical, as a Spaniard I am straight forward. I always put on the table the question “What can you do for our minority to show your commitment to humanity?” I really challenge my Muslim interlocutors, telling them: “Around the world you can see the action of thousands of Christian missionaries, who give up everything, risking even their lives for the sake of their faith. That is the product of our training. Now how can you Muslims help us build a better society, one which we can dream about?” You would be really shocked to see the result: the chairman of the National Company of Electricity coming in private visits to help the Technical Centre, local businessmen sponsoring day students, helping whenever some of our students are taken to jail on false accusations, ashamed at events like those of Gojra.
There are a lot of instances that make you wonder if the people with whom we sit down are not precisely those who can change society because they move society. Maybe this is one of the reasons I love working in Pakistan. On several occasions I have seen evil face to face on those who destroy and die killing, but I have seen God more often in the faces of simple people who help us and who reject violence.
I firmly believe that the time is ripe for true religious dialogue. Together we will show that what we have recently witnessed in Pakistan does not reflect the attitude of one faith against another; this way we can confront those among us who do not follow God but rather their personal interests.
Pakistan is tired of violence; it has harbored violent people for far too long. Let us pray that our leaders can be determined enough to confront the evil that was created over the years. This is the only way to build a better future.
* Fr. Miguel Angel Ruiz, SDB, is Rector of the Don Bosco Technical and Youth Centre, Lahore, Pakistan.